Genesis P-Orridge: Musician and performance artist dedicated to confrontation

Garth Cartwright
Getty

Genesis P-Orridge was a confrontational British musician and artist regarded by enthusiasts as a genuine avant-garde pioneer while dismissed by detractors as a talentless narcissist obsessed with gaining attention and power over more vulnerable individuals.

With the experimental music acts Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV, P-Orridge, who has died of leukaemia aged 70, found a cult following in the 1970s and 1980s that their visual art never commanded.

Neil Andrew Megson was born in Manchester to Roland and Muriel Megson, and grew up in Essex, Cheshire then Warwickshire as the family shifted around due to their father’s job as a travelling salesman. Megson attended the private Solihull School between 1964 and 1968, developing an interest in art, occultism and the avant-garde.

As a teenager Megson and schoolmates were publishing an underground magazine and forming rock bands that looked to London’s psychedelic scene and confrontational New York bands like The Fugs. Briefly studying social administration and philosophy at the University of Hull, Megson dropped out in 1969, shifting to London where s/he joined a commune.

By 1970 Megson had returned to the family home in Shrewsbury, working for their father before shifting to Hull to form COUM Transmissions, an avant-garde artistic and musical troupe, with John Shapeero. Joined by Christine Newby – who changed her name to Cosey Fanni Tutti – the trio attempted to form a band before evolving into performance art.

In 1971 Megson changed name by deed poll to Genesis P-Orridge. COUM’s performances won them the attention of local newspapers and then the police who, judging them obscene, regularly shut COUM events down.

The trio shifted to London in 1973, basing themselves in Hackney. Their performances found Peter Christopherson joining COUM (so being nicknamed Sleazy) and, in 1974, the Arts Council awarded them a grant of £1,500. Their Prostitution show at London’s ICA in 1976 included displays of Tutti modelling in pornographic magazines (and stripping in Soho clubs) alongside used tampons. The media outrage generated saw COUM denounced in the House Of Commons as “wreckers of civilisation” by the Scottish Conservative MP Sir Nicholas Fairbairn.

P-Orridge, Tutti and Sleazy formed Throbbing Gristle, an experimental noise band who coined the genre “industrial music”. The rock music press began taking a cautious interest in Throbbing Gristle and, in 1979, their mockingly titled album 20 Jazz Funk Classics won them an audience beyond the performance art niche they had previously operated in.

After Throbbing Gristle split in 1981, P-Orridge formed Psychic TV, a collective band and occult commune whose music stuck to a more conventional rock format. Psychic TV’s recordings including a series of live albums – one recorded in a different nation each month across 14 months – but it was P-Orridge’s championing of the late occultist Aleister Crowley and Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan, along with their enthusiasm for the likes of Charles Manson and serial killers, that lent them notoriety: in 1992, Channel 4’s Dispatches broadcast a documentary alleging communal child abuse in Satanic rituals. P-Orridge’s home was raided by police while s/he was in the US, remaining there until all charges were dropped. (Channel 4 later retracted its initial accusations.)

Based in New York, P-Orridge and their new wife Lady Jaye (nee Jacqueline Breyer, a New York dominatrix) would spend $200,000 on body modification so to resemble one another. From then on P-Orridge asked to be addressed as “s/he”. In June 1998 the couple won a $1.5m lawsuit against record producer Rick Rubin for injuries sustained while trying to escape a fire at Rubin’s home in April 1995.

Across this time P-Orridge hosted an event at London’s Royal Festival Hall in 1999 while Throbbing Gristle reformed to play London’s Astoria in 2003, their first performance in 23 years. In 2007 Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge died of a heart condition.

Age did not mellow P-Orridge and s/he made headlines by criticising Caitlyn Jenner’s self-description as a “spokesperson” for the transgender community, and then as a model unlike any other for a campaign by the fashion designer Marc Jacobs.

P-Orridge was diagnosed with chronic leukaemia in October 2017. That same year Cosey Fanni Tutti, their former lover and partner in COUM and Throbbing Gristle, published her autobiography Art Sex Music. In it she accused P-Orridge of extreme sexual abuse. S/he denied the accusations and performed a farewell concert at London’s Heaven nightclub in November 2018.

S/he is survived by two adult daughters from their first marriage.

Genesis P-Orridge (Neil Andrew Megson), musician and performance artist, born 22 February 1950, died 14 March 2020

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